Interview: Finding Your Way Around with Büro North

Published:  June 25, 2013
Interview: Finding Your Way Around with Büro North

Finn Butler (FB) and Soren Luckins (SL) of Büro North share some thoughts on designing wayfinding systems, and helping people find their way through the Australia’s urban and natural spaces.

What are the primary considerations of any wayfinding project?
FB: Users are central to any Büro North wayfinding project. In our experience the most effective wayfinding outcomes consider both the innate and learned navigational strategies deployed by users specific to a site. The closer the environment and processes are to meeting the expectations of users, the more successful the outcome will be.

SL: For example, when entering an airport most people arrive with previous experiences of using airports. They have an expectation that they will engage with a check-in process before going through security. Now if that process is changed and they are directed through security before check-in, the environment does not match their expectations and they will no doubt experience confusion, agitation, tension.

FB: Our role at Büro North is interpret the environment, the processes that occur within it and understand the users capabilities to ensure all three elements are aligned for the best possible outcome.

SL: Functional wayfinding is always the primary consideration. Whilst that may seem obvious, we’ve recently been called in on several completed projects that looked good and were designed nicely but had no strategic underpinning. Fundamentally they didn’t work. We had to rework them completely. At Büro North we pride ourselves on our design credibility but we are steadfast in the fact that no matter how good a design looks, if it doesn’t work its useless.

RMIT Swanston Academic Building - signage & wayfinding

RMIT Swanston Academic Building - signage & wayfinding

RMIT Swanston Academic Building - signage & wayfinding


What are the key stages in developing wayfinding systems?
SL: Generally our process is a hybrid of architectural and graphic design processes. We start with Information Gathering, then develop Strategy, develop Concepts, Design Development through to Documentation and finally the Implementation stage.

FB: Each site has unique challenges, each client has unique operational processes and every context has unique user profiles. The more information and data specific to each project that can be gathered, the more informed our design process is.

Where do you begin to find the character and personality of a project?
FB: Our best wayfinding work takes place when we have an open and honest working relationship with our clients. A collaborative relationship allows us to better understand our client’s business and objectives, and enables our client to trust us in return. Wayfinding’s role is to guide users by facilitating the exchange of information to inform decisions, and within that exchange, the narrative or the tone of voice is critical.

SL: The language and terminology used in a children’s hospital is very different to that used in a general hospital and both are vastly different to what might be used in an urban streetscape.

FB: After language we look for the character of the graphic elements, from the typography, pictograms, mapping and arrows through to the form, illumination, materials and construction. It’s a holistic approach.

SL: All these elements combine to express a personality. Often that personality is the only exchange of information between an organisation and its users.

Falls Creek Alpine Resort - wayfinding

Falls Creek Alpine Resort - wayfinding

A project such as the Falls Creek wayfinding system has a certain sensitivity to the environment, yet it also effectively stands out. The same could be said for the Royal Children’s Hospital graphics. How do you manage to walk that fine line?
FB: We were very keen to get our hands dirty on both these projects. In the case of the Falls Creek project, which ran for two years, we spent many weeks up on the mountain with the management team, on foot and on skis.

SL: This extended exposure to the mountain and the people on it, the people using it, gave us a true appreciation of the challenges of working in one of Australia’s most beautiful and demanding environments, and this is reflected in the final wayfinding design. The wayfinding system seems to be a natural human extension of the environment. This is completely by design.

FB: In the case of the Royal Children’s Hospital, the main drive was to persuade the hospital to move away from the use of clinical and technical language when communicating with its patients and visitors, when talking with its users. The idea of a Royal Children’s Hospital world made up of different environments was developed in collaboration with over 500 children of varying ages and abilities. The children were asked to create collages for each environment and answer questions relating to navigation and problem solving. The analysis of this work then formed the basis for the brief for the illustrator Jane Reiseger. The creatures and environments of the Royal Children’s Hospital, like the ‘Koala Ward’ on the ‘Tree Tops’ level, developed naturally as part of the close working relationship between Jane and Büro North.

SL: Our aim is always to create wayfinding outcomes that are sympathetic to their environment, yet communicative and responsive to the issues and context. At Büro North we don’t believe that wayfinding signage should call attention to itself. On both these projects, the feedback and research shows people use the spaces and navigate successfully without even noticing the signage. That’s success for us, it’s there when you need it and blends into its context when you don’t need.

These two projects (among others by Büro North) have also been particularly noteworthy for the way that they’ve engaged with and interpreted Australia’s unique natural environment. Do you have any thoughts on why we don’t see this more often in Australian design?
SL: The Australian landscape has a depth unlike any other for the exploration of ideas and references. Given our focus on context specific design, much of our work at Büro North draws inspiration in colour, form and materials from the immediate environment surrounding the specific project. As each project is geographically separate, so too are the outcomes.

FB: Traditionally a lot of Australian designers have looked to North America and Europe for design inspiration. We think this is a trend that has been fortunately left behind by most of the industry.

SL: In the case of Falls Creek, there was clearly a responsibility to develop a design solution that would treat one of Australia’s most remarkable environments with sensitivity whilst still remaining highly functional. As for the Royal Children’s Hospital, there was an overwhelming need to create a new approach for the naming of destinations and functions within the hospital. A new approach that was both culturally relevant and age appropriate. References to unique Victorian environments provided the structure to develop easily recognisable and memorable themes that could be easily referenced when verbally giving direction.

FB: As part of our design process we tested the implemented wayfinding system with a broad range of subjects selected by the hospital. Many aspects of the wayfinding system were tested beyond the signage. This included Büro North’s guidelines for the delivery of verbal instructions as well as formats for pre-visit information such as appointment letters. The results confirmed our wayfinding system had made a measurable improvement on the patient and visitor experience.

SL: The introduction of our new appointment letter format provided a 24 percent reduction in journey times. Onsite journey times had been reduced by 45 percent. Overall our new wayfinding system as a coordinated element of the overall facility design reduced the time spent by staff giving directions or escorting patients and visitors by approximately 82 percent when compared to the previous facility. In the case of the Royal Children’s Hospital, our wayfinding system provided significant economic and user experience benefits.

Royal Children's Hospital Wayfinding / Illustrations by Jane Reiseger

Royal Children's Hospital Wayfinding / Illustrations by Jane Reiseger

Royal Children's Hospital Wayfinding / Illustrations by Jane Reiseger

How do you explore concepts with your clients and explain your ideas? Do you find that their expectations are generally matched with your own, or is there a significant education process that takes place?
SL: Forming a new relationship with a client is about building trust and helping them engage effectively with the design process. Often clients approach the design process with a strong focus on deliverables rather than strategic benefits. So our first role is to work closely with the client to develop a return brief, which provides us with the opportunity to redefine our client’s expectations. At Büro North, we ask our clients to think about project objectives strategically, considering commercial, operational and user experience opportunities that will have measurable benefits for their businesses. It’s not about pretty colours and nice fonts.

FB: Some clients can find this approach demanding, particularly when their expectations or previous experiences have been more passive. However, clients that choose to work with us at Büro North are increasingly looking for a highly engaging design process that integrates business values and goals with exceptional design outcomes.

SL: One of our core principles at Büro North is that evidence based design should always inform the design direction. Much of what may initially appear as challenging creative concepts are actually self-evident and not confronting at all when delivered with the relevant evidence to support them.

What are some of the things influencing the future of wayfinding design?
SL: The definition of wayfinding is undergoing a significant change. Until recently, wayfinding had been synonymous with signage for many people. But over the last five years there has been a real shift in the language used by clients and those in the construction industry when talking about wayfinding. There now seems to be a broad understanding that wayfinding design is the design of navigational behaviour and not simply signage. The days of graphic designer’s developing 2D graphics to be used as signs and calling it wayfinding are behind us.

FB: Developments in Information Communication Technology is providing wayfinding designers with a much broader range of tools. The inclusion of more technology to deliver more information will expand the definition of wayfinding design. As well as navigating physical spaces, we’ll see wayfinding design incorporating the navigation of operational processes. What’s really interesting at the moment is how these new technologies are changing the way we perceive our environment and as a result our behaviour. At Büro North we’re now researching how our increasing reliance on tools such as GPS and augmented reality will change the way we behave, how our basic navigational skills such as inference and mental modelling are evolving.

This article was first published in Desktop #294 — Making Places

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